Theater and democracy were born in the same place at the same time – in Athens 2,500 years ago — and that is no coincidence: One led to the other.
The creation of theater festivals in the 6th century BCE brought the four warring tribes of Athens into a common space to share a common experience, which engendered a new sense of unity, and of community. ( “In a characteristic attempt to ensure full participation by the citizens,” one source notes, “those eligible were paid to attend the dramatic performances.” !!)
Democracy took root shortly after these festivals began. Athens’ unprecedented period of citizen power and engagement developed simultaneously with its unmatched burst of theatrical creativity led by the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Athenians understood the connection between theater and democracy, as Daniel Mendelsohn detailed in his New York Review article in 2016, How Greek Drama Saved The City:
“…when the philosopher Aristotle famously says that ‘the human is a political animal,’ he doesn’t mean that we are all like Lyndon Baines Johnson but, rather, that the human species is naturally social and civic—by nature suited to live in a polis. Over the course of the fifth century BCE, tragedy evolved into an ideal literary vehicle for exploring, and often questioning, the political, social, and civic values of Athens itself.”
(“polis” is the word the ancient Greeks use for their city-states, and one of the roots of the word “politics.”)
In the United States, people have used Shakespeare’s plays as a tool of political persuasion throughout American history, according to James Shapiro in his book, Shakespeare in a Divided America. In 1916, to pick an ugly example, the character of Caliban in “The Tempest” was interpreted in such a way as to feed arguments for restrictions on immigration.
Nowadays, Mendelsohn contends in his article on the Greeks, “popular theater and politics are two distinct realms,” although he does concede there are some exceptions, such as “The Crucible” and “Angels in America”. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, sees many more, such as “Hamilton,” “The Normal Heart,””Sweat.” Most to the point, he believes that initial connection in Ancient Greece between theater and democracy continues to this day. In his TedTalk in 2018 entitled “Why theater is essential to democracy,” Eustis maintains that theater allows for the collision of different ideas; that it engenders empathy; and, since it requires an audience, it creates community. All three, he says, are the basic tools of citizenship in a democratic society.
So it’s ironic, and annoying, that “political theater” is commonly used these days as shorthand in the political realm for action without substance, something false or unserious that undermines democracy.
The day after a group of Trump supporters violently invaded the U.S. Capitol, two political scientists wrote an essay in the Washington Post excoriating Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz for challenging the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory, which they argue persuasively was a cynical ploy that both ambitious Republicans knew was false, and that helped encourage the riot. But they make their argument using theater as an extended metaphor; three examples:
“Senators with presidential ambitions cannot treat fundamental beliefs about democracy as something they can put on and take off like a costume, returning to real life when the curtain drops.”
“…amateur dramatics led a misinformed audience to storm the stage…”
“…we can go back to enjoying the political performances — and shrugging when the players ham it up — only if everyone knows it’s a play, and the machinery behind the curtain is strong.”
Two other political scientists take issue with just such “narrow rendering of ‘the theatre metaphor’ in politics,” in an academic paper from 2017 with the (very academic) title From senseless to sensory democracy: Insights from applied and participatory theatre, which they attempt to explain more accessibly in a blog post What can theatre do for democracy?
Democracy, it must be said, is an ideal that is no more fully realized in the American theater than it is in American society as a whole. But over the last year, there has been a newly revitalized struggle to fulfill the promise of democracy in both theater and in society. “My hope is that because change is possible, it is also within reach,” Patrick Meyers of the Alliance Theater of Atlanta writes in What Stacey Abrams Can Teach Us About Changing Our Theatres – an essay in American Theatre that explores the latest iteration of a connection established thousands of years ago.
In this new year of 2021, both theater and democracy are under attack, in different ways. The pandemic has shut down physical theaters since March, and are unlikely to return until “some time in the fall of 2021,” as Dr.Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States, said yesterday at the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals – which, like most everything else involving theater these days, is being held virtually. This unprecedented long “intermission” (as theater makers have put it in an effort to boost morale) threatens the survival of individual companies and individual artists.
And democracy is clearly under attack, given the violent storming of the Capitol, egged on by the false accusations and exhortations by the elected leader of the Republic, supported by a shocking number of complicit elected officials.
We are coming to understand how fragile democracy is. It is not a given. Athenian democracy, depending on which historian you listen to, lasted little more than a century. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788; there is argument of course when it was that true democracy kicked in.
Advocates of late have argued that only the government can save the theater. But, there is a mirror argument that theater can also help save democracy — because of its potential, as Hamlet puts it, to hold “the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time [its] form and pressure.”